Dr. Petronilla Whitfield’s professional output

‘Towards accessing Shakespeare’s text for those with dyslexia: strategies to support the challenges and strengths of acting degree students with dyslexia’ (BERA)

Conference – Published 7th Sep 17

How might actor-trainers meet the needs of student-actors with dyslexia, especially when interacting with Shakespeare’s text? How might our methods break away from practices that support the dominant group whilst undermining those whose processes, learning styles and strengths lie outside of conventional models? As a teacher of Voice and Acting on a university acting degree course, I regularly encounter acting students with dyslexia who experience difficulties working within the confines of traditional teaching methods when engaging with the written text.  This paper argues that there is an urgent need to develop inclusive strategies of support in the acting studio, which can enable those with dyslexia. The presence of students with dyslexia in actor-training institutions is an increasingly common occurrence. Currently, there is very little research or discourse regarding the facilitation of dyslexic acting students through adaptation of teaching approaches. For those with dyslexia, Shakespeare’s writing contributes additional challenges, with idiosyncrasies of word-use, unfamiliar language and mixed significations of meanings.    In this paper,  I will give an overview of my (concluded)  PhD research investigation into some dyslexic acting students’ rationale for devising  visual  constructs to represent the text, and describe some of my case-study/action-research trials with the participants; 12 2nd year Acting degree students assessed as dyslexic, during their work on the Shakespeare Acting unit. I will discuss the important role of reading, in expressing the ‘I, myself’ of the actor, and how the presence of dyslexia can inhibit the self-identity of the individual, affecting confidence, demonstration of ability and creative contributions. The paper focusses on the participants’ deviation from traditional acting processes wherein the written text is the singular working source, into the utilisation of drawing, PowerPoint image-slides and choreographed physical actions; translating the alphabetic text into a parallel semiotic language. These symbols facilitate aspects of understanding, speaking, hearing, memorisation and interpretation of Shakespeare’s text into live performance. Sharing examples of these drawings and actions, and an analysis of their differing functions, this paper will offer some ideas for practical teaching methods, which can by-pass the blocks caused by dyslexia.  Finally, I will question where the educator’s role as the enabler, in promoting a sense of self-discovery, and autonomy in their students, might differ from the role of the vocational trainer for the professional world.